Where is the life in the underworld

Waste, diseases, raw materials: "We live in the century of the underworld"

The underground reveals what it has long kept hidden. Author Robert Macfarlane delves into the depths and explains why it raises some of the most pressing questions of our time.

NZZ am Sonntag: Reading your book sometimes made me feel really sick.

Robert Macfarlane: Really? Wonderful!

Wonderful? As you crawled through the Paris catacombs like a worm, your skull turned sideways and your breath squashed, it wasn't just you that felt like you were suffocating.

Oh, the passage to the Salle du Drapeau. I wasn't really in danger there. But I felt the weight of the world all over my body. This immense and non-negotiable presence of the rock above, below and around me. A deep and existential fear that is apparently so strong that it can work through pure description. I wouldn't do this section a second time.

Instead, you went down to an ice cave and a nuclear repository, among other things. You have looked into the blood of the glaciers and the abyss of humanity. Give all those who are not tired of life a good reason to do the same.

In the dark I saw what I would never have seen otherwise. Claustrophobia, for example, is the feeling of our time. Do you remember the worst episode of UK cave climbing?


In 1959, philosophy student Neil Moss wanted to explore the remote sections of the cave system around the Peak Cavern in Derbyshire. The first 800 meters are open to the public. Then the show cave opens into a damp crawl tunnel that fills with water when it rains. Behind a stone hole there is a lake and a chamber. From there a shaft as wide as an inch leads down into the depths. Moss wanted to explore this labyrinth of corridors. But it got stuck. And the more he moved and struggled, the deeper he sank into the shaft, where he slowly suffocated.

Dreadful. What are you trying to say?

It's getting tighter for us too. Likewise for our planet. Space is dwindling, resources, the future. The more environmental crises we want to solve, the bigger they seem to be. Now the underworld confronts us with the most urgent questions of our time: In the Arctic, the melting permafrost is escaping ancient methane deposits. Thawed reindeer corpses release anthrax spores. In Greenland, a sunken military base is thawing with hundreds of thousands of liters of chemical waste from the ice. The underworld brings uninvited things to light. Around the world. After six years of traveling I can say: The 20th century was the century of the mountains. Now we live in the century of the underworld.

Author, researcher and adventurer

Writer Robert Macfarlane

The 43-year-old is a professor of literature at Cambridge and the author of several award-winning books. He also writes for publications such as the English Guardian and the US magazine The New Yorker. Macfarlane has been researching the relationships between people, nature and society for fifteen years. In his first work he dealt with mountains. In the past six years he has traveled to the darkest places on earth. "Im Unterland" has now been published in German. Next, the father of three wants to explore heaven. He lives in Cambridge with his family.

We'll talk about that later. First, tell us why you are suddenly exploring the world the other way around. You used to investigate why people die for their love for the mountains. What triggered this change of perspective?

After 2010 it became difficult for me not to think about the underground world: the Eyjafjallajökull volcano buried Iceland under ashes. The Haiti earthquake destroyed thousands of lives. In addition, miners were buried for 69 days in a Chilean mining disaster, and the Deepwater Horizon explosion caused the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was then that I realized how little we know about the unknown realm below us. And what drastic consequences it can have when the underworld comes up.

What draws people into the depths?

We have been exploring them since ancient times. The oldest stories tell of dangerous journeys into the dark to bring people, objects or knowledge out of the realm of the dead. And the Greek myths are also full of stories about the so-called katabasis, going down into the depths to question spirits or gods about the future. More interesting is the paradox that darkness is a medium of seeing. Things do not get lost in the depths, they reveal themselves.

For example?

Modern scientists do basically the same thing as the heroes of antiquity: they search for knowledge and wisdom in the dark. Glaciologists drill in the polar ice to predict the future of our climate. Microbiologists are researching the so-called deep biosphere, a biomass that is said to be richer than the biodiversity on the Galapagos Islands, kilometers under the earth's crust. And physicists try to solve the mystery of dark matter in underground laboratories. A beautiful metaphor for the idea of ​​knowledge or insight far below the surface of the world.

What would you rather not have seen there?

The limestone landscapes of Slovenia. During the Second World War they were the sites of executions. The landscape itself was made an executioner, people were pushed into the crevices and karst funnels. When I happened upon such a gullet in the poplar forests, all the pain and cruelty literally rose up to me from the abyss. It was horrific. Also because fresh swastikas were scratched into the tree bark next to it.

The lowlands confronts us with our most destructive selves?

On the one hand. But I've also found the opposite: love, altruism and community. Have you heard of the Wood Wide Web?

Yes. A German forester has described in a book how trees communicate with each other and supply each other with nutrients via an underground network of fungi.

Just imagine it: Millions of fungal threads that stretch between filigree tree roots and form a wafer-thin network of far-reaching connections. I learned a lot from this wonder of nature, this system of community.

More than from the people? Trees steal each other's places in the sun.

Human versions of the Wood Wide Web are everywhere. In the forbidden parts of the Paris catacombs, for example: the urban explorers who explore the more than 300 kilometers of tunnels, chambers and tunnels, among other things, adhere to their own rules: respect the past, do not steal, share everything, leave no waste behind, Don't betray anyone. They live an alternative model of community down there.

That sounds pretty heroic.

Of course, I also have reservations about this anarchic subculture, especially since I've rarely felt more uncomfortable than this trespassing.

“Urban life is becoming more and more vertical. Cities like Paris stretch from mines to orbiting satellites. They are up to 3000 kilometers high. "

Climbing over a chain link fence scares you more than climbing through a loose scree slope that could collapse at any moment?

It may sound bizarre. But I probably have a very English respect for private property. What I also dislike about the Urban Explorers is the hipster-like attitude or the carelessness towards those who work in urban structures. Even so, they overcome the geography of the inequality of modern cityscapes. Wealth increases, poverty decreases. For example, the rain canals of Las Vegas are home to an outcast subpopulation. Urban life is becoming more and more vertical. Cities like Paris stretch from the mile-deep mines from whose materials they were built up to the satellites in orbit, which beam their information back into the city's data networks. Our cities are now over 3000 kilometers high. And they keep growing.

You grew up in the coal-mining country of Nottinghamshire. How was it?

As a pulmonologist, my father treated the ailments of miners. So from an early age I had a sense of walking on hollow ground and all the life that has been breathed out beneath me. But I got a real impression of us humans as a degrading species much later. In the mines of Boulby (GB), a system of labyrinth tunnels and roads over 1000 kilometers long, on which one can even drive under the sea. Because it would be too expensive to bring the disused mining machines back to the top, they are simply left behind.

Quasi as fossils of the future.

Crazy, is not it? And imagine: We dug 50 million kilometers of tunnels around the world to extract oil. We have perforated the earth in order to produce something valuable. One of the three big tasks that the Unterland fulfills for us in all cultures and eras. In addition to protecting valuable items or disposing of harmful items.

Which is the most important?

Bring profit. The ice is melting as a result of climate change, and new mineral resources are accessible. A new, golden age appears on the horizon, which also poses threats to the environment and the climate. We just have to get rid of the problems it creates. Here, too, the underworld is of great importance.

The Global Seed Vault is a good example. This is a billion dollar seed vault deep in the permafrost of the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago. This library of biodiversity aims to ensure that all species are preserved in the future. The ironic thing is that it was flooded recently because of the melting permafrost. I laugh, but it's a hollow laugh.

As a boy, did you have any idea of ​​the importance of the underworld?

At that time I was mainly concerned with the caves around and tunnels under Nottinghamshire. You could climb in at one end of the city and out at the other. In my childish imagination, they were fragile, mysterious, and quite fantastic.

«Ice stores information. It is remembered for more than half a million years. It has a memory. And that's blue. "

What's the smell of the underworld?

Stone and water.

The noise?


The feeling?


The color?

Silvery. And blue. Down to the bones. In general, the glacier mill that I abseiled to in Greenland was unearthly. This ice stores information. It is remembered for more than half a million years. It has a memory. And that memory is blue.

You even wanted to die in that blue. Classic case of deep intoxication?

Of course there is this desire, or shall we say this romantic dream, of getting lost in such a blue. I know cave divers who come as close as possible to a beautiful death and who want to dissolve into eternity. For example, the freediver Natalja Moltschanowa, who dived 120 meters without a breathing apparatus. In a poem she describes how she experienced non-existence in the silence of eternal darkness. Fortunately, I only felt the suction of the abyss for a few seconds, otherwise we wouldn't be able to have this conversation.

That would of course be a shame. Especially since I would also like to know what rode you at the far end of the Lofoten Islands.

I wanted to hike over the so-called Lofotenwand to the Kollhellaren cave, which translates as hellhole. It is located on the uninhabited northwest coast, in an archaic landscape, on the edge of land and water. In a place where the borders are fluid, you can penetrate the ocean and the mountain where red dancers were painted on cave walls thousands of years ago.

The only tour they did on their own. In addition, under miserable conditions.

It was spring, but winter caught me, snow, wind. I should have turned back, but I was determined to move on. The risk of avalanches increased, I had no communication, my tent was torn up. I was an idiot. Or let's say: a wise idiot, especially since I correctly assessed the dangers in the end.

When you discovered the murals of the red dancers in the light of the flashlight, you burst into tears. Out of relief?

No. Out of humility. The underworld is a place where the shadows and the spirits live, where people leave something of themselves that is precious to them. I felt very close to these characters and realized that I was just one of many who have traveled to this place, in thousands of years, to find meaning.

The Nordic natives understand the cosmos as heaven, earth and underworld, three worlds between which spirits travel back and forth. You too describe Kollhellaren as the thinnest place you've ever been. Why?

Strange things happened. When I came out of the cave, I saw a figure on the other side of the bay. The next time I looked, it was gone again. I'm trying not to explain. It was a perception, at this moment, at this time.

How did the underworlds change your perception of time?

The mountains already taught me to understand time geologically. It measures in units that short-lived people teach humility: epochs and eons instead of minutes and years. Anyone standing on a summit gets a glimpse of how long they were there before us. So one can also speak of deep time, of deep time. It is also the reckoning of time in the underworld, where the hours thicken, jam and slow down. In the past, I only understood deep time as what was behind us. It also applies to the future. We too are makers from a long time. We too are leaving behind a geological legacy. The question that arises is that of responsibility: How can we be good ancestors for the millions of people who will come after us?

Your answer?

You can use geological time as an excuse. In the sense of: Everything comes as it has to. No matter what we do or not. The earth takes its eternal course. But that's irresponsible. We have treated the earth as an unlimited resource, forgetting its destructive power, which also strikes back from the underworld. If I found an answer on my trip, it was on the Finnish peninsula of Olkiluoto.

Indeed? In the nuclear repository?

I also suspected the darkest place there, but found the most hopeful. The creators of the Onkalo repository have created a high-security grave that can store radioactive waste at a depth of 450 meters. You think in terms of geological times of hundreds of thousands of years. They recognize the ugly reality, roll up their sleeves and show us how we can protect the future from the present. I also advocate this deep-time thinking in politics. The ambitions of the climate movement are just the beginning.

You have come across plastic on the wildest coasts and have seen the glacial ice melt, this substance that appears as powerful but is as fragile as glass. There is a word for this sadness that the planet is out of control and changing landscapes forever: Solastalgia.

This is more of a form of psychological stress that is triggered by environmental changes and can have social consequences such as depression or alcoholism. A disease of the man-made age, a pain that is incurable. The Greenlanders from Kulusuk told me about it. Your surroundings will never be the same again. They used to hear the glacier roar in the village. Everything is quiet now.

Even so, you are optimistic. Why?

We have to live with the darkness and cannot just be in the light because it does not exist permanently. The return to the upper world is described in many myths and legends as a rebirth. Bardo Thödol, this Buddhist writing from the 8th century, is about a journey through the dark world that leads into light. I have never seen the green as greener than after my cave tours, on which you forget everything: colors, sounds, the senses. At that moment I realized that the light can only understand those who have been deep in the dark.